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Reflections from LEI’s New President, Josh Howell

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Dear Lean Community,

We live in a volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous world. Navigating it is the challenge of a lifetime.

Thankfully, for more than 20 years, the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) has been advancing lean thinking, a powerful way to deal with such a reality, through groundbreaking books, research, and training. The work of Jim Womack, John Shook, and others continue to help us understand lean thinking and put it into practice. Personally, lean changed my life. I’ll be forever grateful.

My introduction came in the late 2000s as a store manager for Starbucks Coffee Company in Portland, OR. The company had begun experimenting with lean, and my store was randomly selected for a “model line” activity meant to reveal the benefits and challenges of lean transformation. The experiment led to my joining a “lean team” with a dozen or so people based at the headquarters in Seattle, WA. Our purpose was to develop problem-solving capability across the company, building in resiliency. In 2013, after a redesigned operating and management system had been introduced for all stores, I left Starbucks, drove every mile of I-90, and joined the team at LEI in Boston, MA. I’ve been pinching myself ever since, believing there is no better place to work.

Josh Howell explaining LEI Value Stream
Josh Howell, left, instructs workshop attendees at LEI’s office

Why? Because of the work for you, members of the lean community. Lean transformation is a wild ride. Lean thinking strains the brain. Lean practice can be all kinds of awkward. And yet you keep at it! Because you believe, as I do, that it helps with making things better for customers, employees, businesses, and society at large. We at LEI are here to support you in that honorable endeavor. We do so by encouraging you to keep going, nourishing a community of co-learners, disseminating know-how that sustains good work, and facilitating the discovery of new knowledge wherever and whenever possible.

As a senior coach at LEI, my contribution to this purpose has been creating problem-solving experiences and providing coaching for individuals, teams, and organizations that address real business challenges AND enable LEI to keep learning. One example was a project with Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based seafood company that serves its fish through 30+ restaurants. Together, we experimented with different ways to work in restaurants, discovering how to improve the timeliness of service and food quality that resulted in a better dining experience. You can read Legal Sea Foods' New Problem Solving Philosophy Brings a Sea Change to learn more. This confirmed for us that lean can benefit the entire food industry; its customers, owners, managers, and most importantly, its workers.

Now, about a dozen years after discovering a better way to brew coffee, I’ve been asked by LEI Board Chair Jean Cunningham to lead the institute as president and executive team leader, representing a generation of lean thinkers who are mid-career and products, so to speak, of the institute. It’s humbling, and frankly, intimidating. That said, I will give my best effort to extend the institute’s legacy of thought leadership, caretaking for the past while elevating thought leaders for the future. I will work tirelessly to support you, our collaborators, and the staff of LEI as we practice and promote lean thinking every day.

In fact, exciting experiments are already underway!

  • Jim Morgan, Eric Ethington, and a team of capable coaches are demonstrating for us the power of lean product and process development (LPPD), especially for companies striving to become lean enterprises, with a learning group of partner companies. You can learn more about LPPD by reading Designing the Future, a book that Morgan co-authored and/or hear him and a bunch of practitioners speak at the upcoming Designing the Future Summit.
  • Alice Lee, Mark Reich, Scott Heydon, Jikku Mohan, Taylor Esaki, and other experienced coaches are purposefully co-learning with a diverse set of partner companies such as Turner Construction and Lynn Community Health Center. Through hands-on experimentation, they are discovering more ways to apply lean thinking across various contexts. You can read this example of what’s being learned: Using lean thinking to improve hypertension in a community health centre: a quality improvement report
  • Jean Cunningham and Mike DeLuca are introducing the Lean Business Model, a simple way to see the business benefits that can come from lean thinking, built upon lean principles for accounting and finance. Stay tuned for more! And in the meantime, you can read Cunningham’s book Real Numbers.
  • Deb McGee, in between connecting community members with learning opportunities, and Masia Goodman are bringing existing know-how to more people, and more effectively through the application of next-gen learning principles. Check out Managing to Learn-Remotely for an example.
  • Karen Gaudet and Rebecca Whitehouse are reimagining LEI’s conferences, or what we call summits, challenging us to make them more immersive while continuing to offer world-class speakers who share high-impact stories, insights, and examples of applied lean thinking. We can’t wait to see you at an upcoming summit, possibly it will be at the Lean coaching Summit in July that we put on with Lean Frontiers.
  • Tom Ehrenfeld, Lory Moniz, Chet Marchwinski, Emma Rippe, and the creative team at LEI are developing a “content creation and learning system” that’ll help us deliver the right communication to the right audience at the right time. You can always check out our primary channel for communication, the Lean Post, where you can find great articles such as Stop Asking Your Leaders to "Support" Your Lean Transformation by Dr. Lisa Yerian.

Looking at all of that, how could I not be excited to work at LEI?!?

But our activity only matters if it helps you achieve your defined purpose. So, I better get back to work, work that includes listening to and learning from you. Please be in touch, you can email me at jhowell@lean.org. In the spirit of "be careful what you wish for," I look forward to an overflowing inbox.


Josh Howell
President and Executive team leader
Lean Enterprise Institute

2 Comments | Post a Comment
User June 4, 2019

Congrats! Hoping this is a sign of a turn around at LEI. Great organization, but going from 20 + employees to 16 in a few months did not show a sign of good future. Hoping for the best for LEI to get back on their feet.

Kilian Schalk June 5, 2019

Congratulations Josh!

Happy for you and thrilled for LEI.  Feels like the future of Lean's thought leadership is in great hands and I look forward to seeing it happen. 



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